Written By: Scott Hoke, Hannah Clark, Hasshan Batts, & Samantha Shaak
Surveys can help us understand a lot about our community. From capturing community concerns about changes in our neighborhoods to identifying future opportunities, recent survey efforts by organizations across Allentown each tell us something about how those who live, work, and play in Allentown are feeling about the community.
This series, entitled Focus on Allentown, highlights some of the key findings from three recent survey efforts in Allentown. The aim of the Focus on Allentown series is to identify common trends and identify collective actions we can take to enhance our city. The surveys included in the Focus on Allentown series are from Allentown Promise Neighborhood, Upside Allentown, and Allentown Vision 2030 during 2017 and 2018 (Hub Homepage).
Mobility, Housing, and Health
There is widespread recognition that housing has an important impact on health, from the age of the building to the affordability of the rent or mortgage. Housing is a frequent point of discussion in Allentown currently and is a cornerstone of the Allentown Vision 2030 Comprehensive and Economic Development Plan. However, the story about the state of housing in Allentown is more nuanced than often relayed. The data we have available can provide understanding of certain aspects of the housing challenges and opportunities, but there are also some things that we do not reliably know yet. There is an opportunity to figure out how we prioritize action, based on what we know and do not know in the current state. This story will focus on residential mobility and housing, and what the Allentown Vision 2030 (Fall 2018), PNLV (Summer 2018), and Upside Allentown (May 2017) survey data tell us about the how often people move in and out of the city and what influences these decisions.
The Role of Home Ownership and Renting
Allentown, like many urban centers, is a renter-driven city and will likely continue to be into the future. The most recent American Community Survey (ACS) data (2014-2018) shows that 42% of housing units in Allentown are owner-occupied and 58% are renter-occupied. The Allentown-focused surveys support the national ACS estimates:
- Within the 4-block group area that PNLV surveyed, 64% of survey respondents reported that they rent their home.
- Within the Upside Allentown area in downtown Allentown, 44% of respondents said they rent.
- Within the citywide Allentown Vision 2030 survey 46.3% of survey respondents rent their home. The Vision 2030 survey also broke down the data on renters by ethnicity (see Figure 1) as well as.
- Allentown Vision 2030 also looked at the type of housing unit renters reside in (among the 46.3% who rent):
- 20% rented a duplex, townhouse, or rowhouse
- 14% rented a single-family home
- 63.4% rented a multi-unit apartment.
Overall, all three surveys are in line with national census estimates and suggest that nearly half of the individuals living in Allentown rent, which demonstrates a need for strategies that engage and support the renter population within the city, including landlords and the renters. The local survey data also suggests that there is some geographic variation to the pattern of renting and housing type. The Allentown Vision 2030 survey data suggests that renting may be more common among specific ethnic groups and that there are different types of rental units throughout the city. Further information is needed to understand if the options available to renters enable residents and families to find safe and healthy housing at affordable rents.
Whether one rents or owns their home may also play into the desire to move. The Allentown survey efforts suggest that renters may be more likely to want to remain in their home. In the Upside Allentown survey, residents who own their homes were more likely to report that they would not continue to live in the Center City area if they had a choice. Similarly, the Upside Allentown survey found that residents who own their homes said that Center City has “declined”, compared to 3 years ago,more often than those who rent their homes. Results suggest that residents who own their homes tended to be more dissatisfied with living in Center City.
Residential Mobility: Perception vs. Reality
In Allentown, concern around residential mobility is often expressed. In these discussions, a distinction between movement within and outside the city is often not made, but it can be an important one. For the purposes of this story, the term residential mobility will be used to reflect movement both within and outside the city. Despite having a large proportion of residents who are renters, responses from the PNLV and Allentown Vision 2030 surveys highlight that many residents are staying in their homes and neighborhoods longer than often thought (Why Does Similar Data Look so Different).
- PNLV Survey Responses
- Nearly 40% of respondents lived in their home for 10 or more years
- Only 19% (N = 113) had moved in the last 12 months, with 14% moving once and 5% moving 2 or more times
- Of those households that reported moving in the past 12 months, 62% moved within the same school district.
- Allentown Vision 2030 Survey Responses
- 54% of respondents had lived in Allentown for 10 or more years
- Among respondents under 35 years of age, 66.8% lived in Allentown for less than 10 years.
- Over 25% of respondents had moved at least once in the last year.
- 43.5% of respondents who identified as Latino have lived in Allentown for less than 5 years
When comparing Allentown’s rates of residential longevity from both surveys with national trends, the census data shows similar trends with nearly half of individuals in urban areas living in their residence for more than 11 years.1 However, our locally collected data also suggests that movement may be slightly greater than national trends, which is approximately 14% of the population move each year. With respect to mobility, the PNLV survey also highlights that, although 19% of residents reported moving in the past year, a large percentage of them reported moving within the same school district. Furthermore, the Allentown Vision 2030 data suggests that residential mobility might be related to patterns within the Latino population, with a large percentage of Latino residents reporting living in Allentown for less than 5 years, which is in line with patterns of Latino migration in urban areas since 2000.1
Satisfaction with Current Neighborhood
The three Allentown-based surveys also identify how satisfied residents are with their current neighborhoods, showing the importance of place when discussing housing in Allentown. The residents in some areas of the city, namely the PNLV survey neighborhoods in Center City Allentown, report greater satisfaction with their neighborhoods than others.
- PNLV Survey: 65% of respondents would continue to live in their neighborhood if given a choice.
- Upside Allentown Survey: 39% of respondents would stay in Center City if given a choice.
- Allentown Vision 2030 Survey: Over 40% of respondents said it was unlikely they would move out of Allentown.
So how do these data align with national trends? The Pew Center study reported that for urban residents, 37% or urban residents would move if given the choice to.1 This suggests in some neighborhoods the sentiments are similar to national trends, while in others there may be some work to do to improve resident satisfaction.
Bringing it Together: How does data on residential mobility help tell the story of housing in Allentown?
The discussions of residential mobility, housing, and community satisfaction is nuanced and has to be evaluated from as many perspectives as possible. Allentown resident participation in these surveys helps to provide context to how the city compares to other urban areas and national studies.
As a city, we do not want mobility to equal displacement and housing instability. Mobility is healthy and expected, but how do we, as a community, create pathways to ensure those who want to live here can stay here? For those who want to own a home, there needs to be greater access to pathways to go from renting in Allentown to buying in Allentown. For those who chose to continue to rent, we want affordable and safe housing options that enable people and families to continue to live in Allentown. While housing affordability ranks third among Allentown residents’ top quality of life concerns, according to the Allentown Vision 2030 survey, the top two concerns of safety and public schools were identical to other national studies3, suggesting that these areas may need higher level of attention than housing concerns.
The different geographies of the surveys highlight the importance of understanding housing in the neighborhood context. Additionally, beyond housing factors such as affordability, quality, and safety, the desire to put down roots in a neighborhood relates to the sense of community and feeling welcome. According to the PNLV survey results, 87% said they feel welcome in their community and 44% have volunteered with a community group in the last year. It is recognized that community members’ attachments to the community and a sense of community engagement tends to increase the longer someone lives in a community,1; therefore, understanding of the neighborhood differences across these factors may help to identify where services to improve these conditions should be centered.
As the City of Allentown embarks on neighborhood planning via the implementation of the Allentown Vision 2030 Plan and collaborates with residents and community partners to identify a neighborhood’s housing priorities, there is an opportunity to look at the data collected and identify gaps that may inform future community strategies. Some of the questions that are still unanswered based on what we know to date are presented in Box 1.
These questions are more difficult to wrap our collective arms around, but we recognize the need to be able to dig into these more complex questions in order to truly understand the roots of residential mobility in Allentown. From a global perspective, the local survey efforts show that safe and healthy housing is not simply about affordability and quality, but also about interconnected community concerns like the sense of place, engagement, and safety.
 Parker, K., Horowitz, J.M., Brown, A., Fry, R., Cohn, D., & Igielnik, R. (2018, May). Demographic and Economic Trends in Urban, Suburban, and Rural Communities. The Pew research Center. From https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2018/05/22/demographic-and-economic-trends-in-urban-suburban-and-rural-communities/
 North American Moving Services (n.d.). Why are Americans moving? from https://northamerican.com/migration-map/
 Magre, J., Vallbe, J.J., Tomas, M. (2016). Moving to suburbia? Effects of residential mobility on community engagement. Urban Studies, 53(1), 17-39.
Scott Hoke, Cedar Crest College
Hannah Clark, City of Allentown
Hasshan Batts, Allentown Promise Neighborhood
Samantha Shaak, Lehigh Valley Health Network Department of Community Health